Liquid Fire

Liquid Fire

Anthony Francis

May 2015 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-6-260

The Skindancer series, Book 3

Our PriceUS$16.95
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Magical tattoo artist Dakota Frost is back—fighting a fire that may burn down the world.

For millennia, ancient factions of wizards have closely guarded the secrets of liquid fire—distilled from the blood of dragons and the magical key to unbelievably powerful spells.

Now, Dakota’s flirtation with a fireweaver while visiting San Francisco engulfs her in a magicial feud. Forced to defend herself with her masterwork, a powerful dragon tattoo, Dakota becomes the target of superstitious magicians who believe she’s summoned the spirit of a dragon . . . the first step in an incredibly dangerous spell that could create more liquid fire.

Soon, Dakota finds herself caught in a magical battle between ageless wizards desperate to seize the rapidly dwindling supply of liquid fire and fireweaver terrorists who’ll stop at nothing to keep every last drop of it for themselves.

Even if that means killing Dakota.

The race is on to find the truth about liquid fire, the secret behind Dakota’s magic tattoos, and the message hidden in the fireweaver’s secret codes—before the world goes up in flames.

Filled with spectacular magic, pyrotechnic action, and kinky romance, LIQUID FIRE is the action-packed third installment in the Dakota Frost, Skindancer series.

Epic Award winner Anthony Francis writes the Skindancer series while working on robots for "the Search Engine Which Starts with a 'G'."


"Liquid Fire immerses the reader into a fantastically vivid and detailed world of myth, magic and science. Francis just has a way of pulling the reader in and keeping us there to stay." -- Tometender,

"Thank you to the powers-that-be for the opportunity to be one of the first readers captivated by Dakota Frost and her magical tats. Addictive, sassy, sexy, funny, intense, brilliant." —Bitten By Books, on Frost Moon

"With Blood Rock, Anthony Francis’s Skindancer series becomes one of my favorites." —Book’d Out, on Blood Rock

"A great blend of magic and science that has me wanting to read the first two books in the series!” -- Jennifer Jamieson, Netgalley


1. Fire is Life


"Fire is life,” said Jewel Grace. "That’s why I want to summon a dragon.”

"Do... what?” I said, staring at the cute granola chick in the aisle seat be­side me as if she were a crazy person. The gypsy-chic Bohemian had caught my eye from the start of our flight out to San Francisco: wry, curvy, curly-haired—and, from the way she surreptitiously checked out not just my tattoos and my Mohawk, but my breasts, a probable lesbian—but for the first two hours, I’d no time for flirting. I’d been preoccupied comforting my newly adopted weretiger daughter on her very first airplane ride. After Cinnamon finally fell asleep, Jewel and I started talking, and she’d seemed sane, until now; but who knew what bad wires lay beneath that mass of copper curls? "I’m sorry, I thought you just said—”

"Fire is my life,” said Jewel, stretching out lithe arms, making her intricate leather and chainmail bracers jingle—and making my eyes follow the deft move­ments of her delicate hands. "I’m a professional fire magician, and I’m traveling the world, trying to summon a dragon.”

Jewel caught me looking and smirked—but then her eyes flicked to my bare, tattooed arms, gazing with delicious indecency at my masterwork: a vast tribal dragon, my totem animal, a glorious, colorful, intricate tattoo covering half my body.

Roused by her attention, the Dragon stirred to life, sliding over my skin like magic.

No, not just likemagic; my tattoos are magic.

My name is Dakota Frost, and I’m a Skindancer, a magical tattoo artist. My skin is a living canvas, covered from my shaved temples to my slender toes in a network of magical marks, powered by my beating heart, that project my inten­tions onto the world when I dance.

Which makes a cramped middle airline seat the worst possible place for six-foot-two me to lose control of a tattoo. The Dragon is a re-inked version of my masterpiece, but it never set right since I was forced to use it in a magical duel before the re-inking was completed.

As I squirmed, itsquirmed, empowered by the flex of my living canvas. My control was never the best—I quit my Skindancing training after learning to tattoo—and being crammed into an airplane seat made it tricky to keep my unexpectedly animated Dragon from squirming free.

As it slid over me, I became acutely aware that the beige tube around us was shooting through the air at seven hundred miles an hour, that beneath the dark blue carpet lay six miles of down... and that in that duel, I’d destroyed a reception hall with the half-finished design.

The last thing I needed was for the full Dragon to bust out at thirty thou­sand feet.

"Buh,” Jewel said, staring slack-mouthed as the tail of my dragon slid over my shoulder. She rubbed her eyes—then held her hand over her face, peering between two fingers. "Oh. My. God. I just said summon a dragon—and your tattoo came to life!”

I sighed. I take back what I said: the last thing I needed was to be sitting next to a crazy magician—the kind of woo-woo who just might decide she needed my Dragon to summon herdragon. It wouldn’t have been the first time that a crazy tried to harvest my canvas.

I know calling that "crazy” sounds a little harsh from someone with a liv­ing magic tattoo crawling over her skin—but there’s magic, and then there’s ridiculous. There’s a reason they call me the Skeptical Witch—I don’t swallow the lore of the magical world whole.

"Sorry, Miss Grace,” I said, pouring on my best Southern charm—which, frankly, isn’t much, because between a dad on the Force and a mom teaching Special Ed, I ended up closer to military brat than Southern belle. "You didn’t summon a dragon—it’s just a magic tattoo.”

"Oh, boo,” she said, leaning, peering at my skin. "But I’d never say just magic—”

"Fair enough,” I said, "but still... dragons went extinct before the dino­saurs.”

"Oh, I know,” Jewel said, eyes sparkling at me.

"Even the images of dragons we have are a muddle,” I said, finding it hard not to smile back. "Our movie-friendly wings and scaly image is largely from Tolkien, and our myths are a bad jumble of folktales and distorted recollections of the creatures called drakes—”

"Oh, I know,” she said again, her own smile growing.

"And drakes,” I said, "nothing against them, but they’re not really—”

"Oh, I know,” Jewel said. "Though... I do want to see the Drake Cage while I’m here.”

That stopped me for a moment. Drakes are some of the world’s most magi­cal creatures, granted fire and flight by the magical residue of dragons the same way my daughter was granted shapeshifting by the magical residue of... well, whatever the werekin precursor was.

Drakes might not be true dragons, but they were spectacular.

"Me too. Missed it on my last trip; my former girlfriend and I were... preoc­cupied,” I said, proud I’d smoothly slipped in two little bits of infor­mation about my dating availability. I lifted my shoulder slightly. "Still... this is as close to a dragon as you’re likely to get.”

Jewel blinked, then smiled. "Oh, don’t say that,” she said, reaching out to gently touch the Dragon as it rippled over my skin. I felt a quiet thrill at the unexpected contact, then an electric charge as the tip of the tail accelerated under her fingers, sliding out of sight.

"I was going to say ‘don’t do that,’” I said, "but I think she likes you.”

Jewel looked at me, mouth quirking up into a pleasant wry smile. Her eyes flicked to my arm, tracing the elaborate tattoos that were slowly shifting back into position—green tribal vines shimmering, red roses rippling in bloom, and sparkling in the design, tiny purple jewels.

"Good,” she said, turning forward, smile struggling to grow broader, even as she flushed slightly with—was that embarrassment? How cute! Then she said, "Not to diss the spirit of your dragon, but when someone says a thing likes something, they normally mean they like—”

"Yapping fuckers,” barked my daughter—loud enough to make Jewel blanch. I gave Jewel a faint smile and turned to comfort Cinnamon, who was leaning against the window, holding her own tail, muttering, "Oh, when do—fahh!—when do we lands?

I sighed and smiled, watching my beautiful daughter, my beautiful weretiger daughter, my beautiful, adopted, lycanthropic Tourette’s-challenged brainiac teenager suffering through the last stages of an airplane flight, holding her own tail like a stuffed animal.

"It’s all right, baby,” I said, scratching her blue bandana; she shuddered, grip­ping her tail tighter, her head snapping a little in her sneezy Tourette’s tic; I was so glad that I hadn’t let her take this trip alone. "The captain announced the landing while you were asleep.”

"I’m sorry, Mom,” she said. "I didn’t mean—fah!—to mess up your flirt­ing.”

I smiled, a little embarrassed myself now.

Cinnamon and I have the same last name, the same silver collars, and simi­lar magical tattoos, but there the similarities end. I’m a smart aleck; she has Tourette’s. I’m tall, leggy, and Mohawked; my adopted daughter is short, wiry, and crams her orange hair under a blue bandana. I dress edgy to stand out; Cinnamon dresses like a schoolgirl to make people overlook her twitching cat ears and flicking banded tail. I chose my intricate tattoos to achieve a whole library of magical effects; Cinnamon’s bold tiger tattoos were imposed on her by a backwoods graphomancer to grant partial invisibility—which, paradoxi­cally, makes her stand out more, since when she’s not invisible, her tiger stripes cover her face.

I don’t want to sugarcoat it; in modern America, where practicing magi­cians have talk shows and full-blooded vampires are hits on cable TV, werekin­dred still get the shit end of the stick. Cinnamon had been a street cat, ware­housed, borderline abused, and I was happy she’d let me adopt her, gratified she’d taken to school so well, and enormouslyproud my little genius won a math prize which included a trip to San Francisco—but there was no way I’d make a vampire-collared werecat with stage fright go through post-9/11 airport secu­rity all by herself.

Or, for that matter, let her go into enemy territory alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I love San Francisco, and not just because it’s a LGBT mecca. It had a warm place in my heart from my first grownup vacation with my first childhood girlfriend, who’d left more than a few warm spots on my bottom at the dungeon of one of its fetish clubs. It held a new fascination for me as one of the few places in the United States that had a dojo for my favorite martial art, the obscure Okinawan karate called Taido. Heck, it might become a new destination for me; my childhood friend Jinx was going to move out here when her husband Doug graduated; they were finishing up their honey­moon in San Francisco right now.

But San Francisco was notAtlanta. It might not literally be enemy terri­tory... but there was no magical shield protecting San Francisco like the magi­cal Perimeter of Atlanta. There was no truce between vampires, werekin, and magicians in California like the mystical Compact of Georgia. There was no authority to prosecute rogue magicians in the Bay Area like Atlanta’s Magical Security Council—which I myself had created and been roped into leading.

San Francisco was the magical Wild West.

We were flying into a city where magicians and werekin and vampires were at each other’s throats... and I was a magician, with a weretiger daughter, both wearing the silver collars of the Lady Saffron... the Vampire Queen of Little Five Points.

What could possibly go wrong? All I had to do was beat sense into a whole Conclave of truceless magicians, werekin, and vampires who’d been at unde­clared war for a century and a half. The Wizarding Guild actually seemed inter­ested in what I was doing with the MSC, so, if I was lucky, they wouldn’t kill us; and, if I was very lucky, maybe I’d collect some new allies.

With that little task out of the way, Cinnamon would be free to collect her award—and, if I was very, verylucky, I’d be free to collect on a debt. San Francisco wasn’t just the home of the Wizarding Guild; it was also the home of Alex Nicholson, my contact with the Guild, a good friend who had put his life on the line for me... and a man who owed me a million bucks.

OK, technically Alexdidn’t owe me that million; he had just inherited the leadership of the Valentine Foundation, which owed me that million for besting its late founder in a magical challenge he thought he couldn’t lose—and, there­fore, never thought he’d have to pay.

I closed my eyes with a sigh, then opened them to see Cinnamon’s long bony fingers gripping the arms of the seat. "Oh, for the love, little girl,” I said, putting my hand over hers and rubbing it warmly—then with that hand trapped, I leaned in, free hand poking at her huge ear. "Statistically speaking, it’s the safest—my, are you getting ear mites again?”

"Mom!” she said, ducking away as my finger caught the tufts of hair. Cinnamon started swatting at me with her free hand, and as I continued to probe, she tried to get her other hand loose—but while she had more strength, I had more leverage. "Don’t pick at it—”

And then the tires met the tarmac, and we were down.

"Mom,” she said, as I released her hand after one last squeeze. She half smiled, half glared, holding her hand, ear twitching something fierce. "Meany,” she said, screwing her knuckle in her ear; she never used the claws on anything delicate. "Big old meany—”

"Distracted you, didn’t I?” I said, leaning back in the seat. I heard a chuckle, and looked over to see Jewel smiling. I smiled back, a little forced, still unsure of whether there was real interest there or she was just an irrepressible flirt. "What?”

"Nothing,” she said, covering her smile with her hand.

After crossing the country at seven hundred miles an hour, the plane crossed the tarmac at a crawl. Everyone pulled out their cell phones; even I dug out my smartphone. I called the Lady Saffron, far up in First Class, but she didn’t answer. Jewel? She texted like a demon.

Then the arrival bell rang. Quick as a flash, Jewel hopped up and popped open a bin.

"I hate all this 9/11 nonsense,” she said, tugging at her jacket repeatedly, try­ing to pull it out from beneath a heavy, ancient Samsonite someone had jammed in to the overhead at the last minute. "I have to run all my gear through baggage claim—holy cow.”

I’d reached out over her head and lifted the Samsonite out of the way so she could free her jacket. Jewel glanced back at me and did a double take—even on large planes, I can usually bump my forehead against the roof if I stand tippy-toe.

Cinnamon made a little yelp, her tail apparently caught in a tangle of our un­buckled seatbelts. As I leaned to help her, a man in the opposite side stood and opened the bin. Soon, the aisle was filled with passengers unloading their bags, with Jewel two rows ahead of us.

I started forward to get her card or figure out how to continue the dragon discussion later, but irate passengers in the row ahead of me hopped up, and Cinnamon tugged at me from behind. With long arms, I scooped down our carry-ons while the row emptied.

When the logjam of passengers in front of us had cleared, Jewel was gone.

We tromped off the plane, wedged past impatient departees, passed rows of seats empty and full, and sailed out into the terminal. All the airports I had visited since I started the Council were starting to blur. All had the same blah décor—here, blue and gray patterned carpet. All tried to spice it with airport art—here, a giant driftwood horse. And all had an army of underpaid staff— here, Latinos and Asians, picking up after us wasteful consumers destroying the atmosphere with our travel.

Soon, I found the stairs to the baggage claim area, where once again I was next to Jewel.

"Surprise, surprise,” Jewel said, mouth quirking up a little.

"Fancy meeting you here,” I said, pulling Cinnamon’s bag off the carousel.

"Fancy that,” Jewel replied. A huge black bag, covered with stickers, thud­ded out of the conveyor and slammed down onto the carousel, and she began wedging her way with a litany of "excuse me’s.” The bag was passing too fast, so I reached in and pulled it out.

"Here you go,” I said. What wasit about this woman? I couldn’t resist try­ing to help her, trying to show off for her. I tried to steel myself, to play cool, then I caught Jewel staring at the muscles in my arms as I set the bag down. I flexed my bicep and said, "Show’s for free.”

"Oh, God,” she said, putting her hand to her forehead. "Sorry, thanks.”

"No need to be sorry,” I said, "and anyway, ‘sorry’ is normally my line.”

"Who’s your new friend?” asked an impish Southern belle voice from be­side us, and I saw Jewel’s head jerk aside to see the red-hair-black-dress- bon­net-and-bomber-goggles show that was the Lady Saffron—my ex-girl­friend. She looked Jewel up and down. "Adorable.”

"I... I,” Jewel said, eyes widening at Saffron, clearly not sure how to take her.

Saffron was a daywalker, making few concessions to her vampirism be­yond the goggles. The dark black cloth made her red hair stand out like fire, but it exposed her face and throat. Most people never guessed that she was the most powerful vampire in the Southeast.

But you couldn’t miss her entourage. Darkrose, Saffron’s consort, wore a dark, gray-hemmed velvet traveling hood that cloaked her almost completely. Beside her stood Vickman, her sharp-eyed, bearded bodyguard, quietly menac­ing in his black hat and bulky coat. Collecting the bags was Schultze, Darkrose’s human servant, a tall, swarthy, reserved man in an immaculate white suit with black patterned trim that echoed Darkrose’s robe. For those in the know, a hooded figure with matching attendant and hovering bodyguard just screamed "vampire.”

But I couldn’t tell if Jewel could tell. She looked at Saffron’s imperious black dress and regal red hair pouring out of her bonnet; then at the black leather catsuit beneath Darkrose’s Sith traveling cloak, then back at me, eyes lingering on the steel collar that symbolized I was under Saffron’s protection. Jewel raised an eyebrow; I returned the favor. Perhaps this curly-haired granola girl was into more devious forms of alternative culture than just magical firespin­ning.

Schultze leaned forward and pulled another bag off the carousel. "The last bag, ma’am.”

"Thank you, Schultze,” Darkrose said wearily. She was upright, but sag­ging to the point you could barely see her dark features beneath the hood; unlike Saffron, she was not yet a full daywalker and found the day not only dangerous but draining. "All we await now is Nyissa.”

"Another of your... friends?” Jewel asked, trying to subtly lift her head to peer inside Darkrose’s cloak—not looking at her features, but at the collar of her leather catsuit, barely visible beneath the hood of the cloak. "Is she coming on another flight?”

"No, she came on this one with us,” I said, smiling. I had been wondering how far we could push this without actually mentioning the word "vampire,” and now, I guessed, was it—I pointed at the traveling coffin coming out of the oversized baggage area. "Over there.”

"Oh, no, I’m sosorry,” Jewel said, face falling. Damn it, I hadn’t intended to make her think Nyissa was dead. But before I could explain, her phone buzzed and she pulled it out. "Hey, my ride is here. Nice meeting you, Mohawk Lady.”

"Great meeting you, Granola Girl,” I said.

And Jewel walked off, texting into her phone. Far, far down the terminal, I saw a young, short muscular man with spiky hair waving, and Jewel waved back. But rather than running to meet him, she stopped, wavered, dug something out of her bag—and walked back to us.

"I’m sorry,” she said. "I hate the whole ‘meet someone on the plane, have a nice conversation, then spoil it by passing over a greasy business card’ thing. I hate it when some slimy old businessman or lipstick lesbian does it to me. But after our conversation—”

And she handed over, not a business card, but a little postcard, a glossy lit­tle flyer for "Fireweaver’s Foray” at something called the Crucible. "We’re performing tonight,” she said, "so this may be too last minute. But it really sounds like something you’d enjoy.”

"Thanks,” I said, flipping it over. It was in Oakland, which, according to the directions, was on the far side of the San Francisco Bay. Huh—I always thought Oakland was a suburb of Los Angeles. Who knew? "No promises. We have a full schedule, and I don’t know if we can.”

Jewel smiled, and when she did so her eyes seemed to sparkle. "Great! See you.”

And then she strode off, texting into her phone as she went to join her friend.

"Did I not just say I probably wouldn’t make it?” I asked, watching her go.

"With your words,” Darkrose said, "but not your tone.”

"I heard it as ‘definitely make it,’” Saffron said. "Very clearly ‘definitely’.”

"Mohawk and Granola sittin’ in a tree,” Cinnamon said—then hissed. The last time she’d used that phrase, it had been "Cotie and Cally,” and Cally—Calaphase, my ex-boyfriend—wasn’t with us anymore. "Sorry, Mom. That was mean.”

"S’okay,” I said, rubbing her headscarf until it went crooked and she swat­ted at me. "Have to get over it sometime.”

"And tonight’s a good night to do it,” Saffron said. "We’re required to pre­sent ourselves to the Vampire Court of San Francisco, but you’re not welcome in their territory until invited—and I’m sorry, Cinnamon, that includes you too. You both wear my collar.”

"I knew it,” Cinnamon said, head snapping aside. "Nothing but trou­ble—”

"Cinnamon, you’re nevertrouble,” I fibbed. "Saffron, look... Doug and Jinx are staying in San Francisco. Are you seriously telling me that they’re safer there than we are because we’re wearing your collars? I thought these stupid things guaranteed us protection—”

"In Atlanta,” Saffron said. "But you’re not safe in San Francisco until we know that will be honored. That’s not just for your protection; it’s for ours. You both wear my collar—so to other vampires, you’re not just under my protec­tion—you’re my minions.”

"I am not anybody’s ‘minion,’” I said.

"But they don’t know that,” Darkrose said, raising her head, weary, but with an edge to her clipped South African accent. "And one powerful vampire bringing a formidable werekin and a very formidable witch into the territory of another could be considered an act of war.”

"You can stay at the airport hotel, or you can go have a night on the town,” Saffron said, folding her arms, setting her chin, making the locks of red hair pouring out of her bonnet look like the mane of a red lion. "But you can’t join us in San Francisco until you’re cleared.”

"All right, fine, a night on the town,” I said, rubbing Cinnamon’s headscarf. "Oakland looks like it could be only, what, a thirty minute drive or so? Let’s catch some dinner, then go see Jewel spin some fire. After all—wait for it—what’s the worst that could happen?”


"On the streets of Oakland?” asked a sharp voice. "You could die, Dakota Frost.”

2. Shoot the Messenger

Vickman cursed and shoved Darkrose back with one hand, Schultze closing ranks beside him so they shielded her with their bodies from the short, wiry man in the tough biker leathers who had seemingly popped right into the middle of us.

Time slowed down. Everything got quiet. The crowd receded, its people blur­ring, its noise fading, leaving this man at the center. I jerked back into a low karate stance, Cinnamon hissed, claws out, and Saffron... just stood there, amused, as if she was invulnerable.

"What the hell—” Vickman said. His voice echoed oddly, and he stiffened, clenching his teeth. Whatever weapons he had were no doubt in the baggage; whereas this guy could have come out off of the streets with an Uzi under his leather jacket. "How did you—”

"An area glamour,” I guessed, relaxing slightly, waving my arm through the air. I could feel the slightest tingle of magic, some sparkle of mana that reacted against my tattoos. "Mostly, a silence spell. Surprising how much people rely on sound to draw their attention, isn’t it?”

"Surprising,” said the wiry little man—five-six, maybe five-seven, his motor­cycle jacket open, and his sandy hair tousled, like it had been blown back—"how much people don’t listen. Especially when told things like ‘Stay away, Dakota Frost.’”

"I beg your pardon,” Saffron said, scowling. "I believe we negotiated—”

"Quiet, Scarlett O’Hara,” the man said, eyes fixed on me. "This is wizard­ing business—”

"Wizarding business?” I said. "Like, Wizarding Guild? But I’m working with you!”

"You think you’re working with us?” The man’s lip curled. "Just because we assigned a babysitter to your crazy little Council? Nicholson’s barely a wiz­ard, and he’s not workingwith you, he was supposed to keep tabs on you—and he sure as hell doesn’t speak for the Guild.”

"Dakota,” Saffron said, voice warning. "What haven’t you told me—”

"Nothing,” I said. "Hang on. When I first talked about this trip, there was some flak—”

"Now she remembers,” the man said. "You were specifically banned from the Bay—”

"We worked that out, first week! The Wizarding Guild even invited me to give a talk—”

"Before they found out you were bringing a coven of vampires!” the man said, raising his voice, not two feet from Saffron—and I suddenly realized, he doesn’t know she is a vampire. He couldn’t; as she glared, he ignored her, leaned in, and said to me, "Consider yourself disinvited.”

Something was amiss. The Guild had cleared my visit. Their leadership seemed to want to know more about the MSC—I was giving a talk at their request. Heck, I had a Guild wizard, Alex Nicholson, not only on my new Magical Security Council, but on speed dial.

And yet the guy in front of me who claimed to be with the Wizarding Guild had no clue I traveled with vampires that had no need of a coffin. Then I remembered how complicated vampire politics was with its secrets and fac­tions—and suddenly, I got it.

"You’re not from theWizarding Guild,” I said. "You’re from a faction within it.”

"The only faction you need worry about,” the wiry man said. He shot his hand toward the inside of his jacket, then stopped just short, a grin spreading across his face as Vickman convulsed. "May I? I have a present but I wouldn’t want to, you know, spook you.”

I caught a flash of white inside his biker jacket. While the wiry man’s atten­tion was focused on Vickman, I shot my long arm out. The wizard jerked back like he’d been stung, but not fast enough, and my hand came back with a white envelope plucked from his map pocket.

"Fuck me!” he said, raising his fists in what looked like a karate stance—Tae Kwon Do or something Korean-derived. Huh. I was actually starting to recognize the subtleties of the different martial arts. Interesting.

"I take it I’m to open this?” I asked. The envelope was hand addressed, simply to "Frost.” I passed my tattooed palm over it, but the yin-yang didn’t absorb any stray magic. "There’s no live magic on this, but if it’s filled with powdered anthrax or whatever, Vickman—shoot him.”

Vickman scowled, nodded, and put his hand inside his jacket, as if there re­ally was a gun in there he’d managed to sneak past security. The wiry little man’s eyes bugged and he started to back up, but he found himself penned in between Cinnamon and Saffron.

Fists still raised, the little man made a shrugging move to back them off, and I expected Saffron to show her fangs—but Cinnamon reacted first, growling quiet but deep, staring up at him, chin set, never taking her eyes off him for an instant—like a cat in a challenge.

The little man’s face went ashen. "Now wait a minute,” he said, looking around for help—but everyone was still ignoring us, passing our zone of silence in quiet blurs. And if he popped the bubble and cried for help, the TSA would be all over him, too. "Don’t you—”

"You’re the one who materialized in the middle of a crowd of Edge­worlders,” I said, cautiously cracking the envelope open. "If you wanted to play this nice, you should have waited for us with a sign that said ‘Frost’ rather than playing stupid wizard tricks.”

The man cursed, but relaxed slightly as I pulled out... tickets, back to Atlanta. I thumbed through them... and found one for almost every member of our party, right down to my daughter: FROST, CINNAMON. Only Nyissa was left out. Disturbing.

"So,” he said, folding his arms, not looking at Cinnamon, even though she could take his throat out. "Now you know the score. We told you not to come. You came anyway. So we’re giving you an out. Take the tickets, put a leash on your pet tiger—”

"Oh, you did not just say that,” I said, as Cinnamon’s growl deepened.

"—leave your vamps in their coffins, and fly with them back to your little hick hellhole!”

At "vamps,” Saffron chuckled, glancing at Darkrose, and the little man raised an eyebrow, not getting it. I was looking over the tickets; there was in­deed a shipping ticket for one coffin, but apparently he didn’t know that—or hadn’t been told that. Even more disturbing.

"You’ve been misinformed,” I said. "First, my daughter doesn’t wear a leash. Second, Atlanta is very advanced—its metro is larger than San Francisco and San Jose combined. And third, most of the vampires in our party don’t travel in coffins. Only our... enforcer.”

Saffron dropped her hand on the little man’s shoulder, baring her fangs, and a second later, Cinnamon did likewise, half a snarl, half a grin. The man tensed in fear, glancing back and forth between them—and then I heard a pair of clicks behind me, and turned.

Startled travelers were backing up as the latches on the coffin at the load­ing area opened on their own. Slowly, the lid lifted, lifted by a porcelain-pale arm; then sherose, a shag of violet hair over pure white skin, a slender body wrapped in stripes of dark cloth—with a long metal poker carried in her hands, like a riding crop. The Lady Nyissa. My "bodyguard.”

Technically, I was Nyissa’s vampire "client,” gaining her protection in ex­change for an act of submission. Saffron, my former girlfriend, had demanded I wear this actual submissive’s collar, like, in public, to receive her protection... and yet had rarely delivered. Nyissa, on the other hand, my former enemy, had only asked for a drop of blood and a quarter... and had guarded me in person in a vampire court, nearly costing her life.

Where Darkrose and Saffron were daywalkers, and covered themselves in lay­ers and layers of clothes that helped them brave the day, Nyissa was not—and, as a working dominatrix on top of being a vampire, flaunted her body, wearing as little as she could get away with.

Nyissa sashayed up to us, working it, her hips making her flared skirt sway, her body seeming to grind against the negative space between the two vertical stripes of cloth that covered her breasts. Your eyes naturally followed that great white expanse of flesh up from her navel, between her breasts, and then to her throat—where a horrible scar covered what should have been her voice box. I tore my eyes away and glanced at the little wizard, who was mesmerized—first staring openly like at a peep show, then mouth dropping in horror as Nyissa bared her considerable fangs: sharp canines twice as long as a human’s—and far more pointed.

A slight hiss escaped Nyissa’s mouth; with her too-pale skin and too-violet hair, those silent bared fangs made her seem even more like a life-sized porce­lain doll. She raised the poker until it was level with the scars, and the little wizard actually raised a hand as if to ward off a blow. Cruelly, she smiled, even more fearsome than bared fangs—and subtly, she released one hand from the poker and flicked it at me, American Sign Language for, is there a problem?

"Not for us,” I said aloud—my ASL is still rusty. The little wizard was still staring—not that I blamed him; Nyissa was eye-catching even in this turn as Scarthroat Vampirella—but I snapped my fingers and said, "Hey! Eyes on me. What’s your name?”

"Ferguson,” he said sharply.

"Well, Ferguson,” I said, offering the tickets back to him, "I don’t know what you’ve done to piss off whoever sent you, but they must have known—should have known—we had two daywalkers in our party, and they should have told you.”

"Shit,” Ferguson said, looking around wildly, trying to get a bead on Darkrose and Saffron without ever fully taking his eyes off Nyissa—quite a trick if he’d been able to pull it off, and quite amusing since he couldn’t. "Oh, shit shit shit—”

"Regardless,” I said, "They should have known we can’t accept these tick­ets; you need twenty-four hours notice to ship a vampire encoffined, and we can’t leave Nyissa here without getting the permission of the Vampire Court of San Francisco. It would be a death sentence.”

Ferguson hesitated, then snatched the tickets back. "Damn it,” he said bit­terly.

"What is this, amateur hour?” Vickman said. "If they knew all that—”

"Maybe they didn’t,” Cinnamon said brightly. "Sounds like they hates vam­pires. But maybe they never gots to ship ’em anywhere. I means, what’s the postage? Maybe they—fahh!—wants to see if we’re easy to spook. Boo! Or maybe they did know and gave’m somethin’ to trip over.”

"Trip over?” Vickman said. "You mean they wanted him to fail?”

"Maybe,” Cinnamon said, shrugging, as Ferguson seemed to deflate. "S’like a bunt hunt. You sends a young were out hunting for ‘bunts’ in a place where humans’ll probl’y get ’em. At least Fergie had a chance. If he fails, good for who hates him; if he runs us off, even better.”

"I don’t take it we can get the name of your employer, Mr. Ferguson?” I said.

"Fuck no,” Ferguson said, clenching his teeth. "I don’t want to get killed.”

"How charming. May I then?” I said. I took the tickets back from him, then wrote CALL ME—DAKOTA FROST on the envelope with my number underneath. "Please tell whoever doesn’t want us here that we’ve received their warning, and I want to speak to them.”

Ferguson took it back, incredulous. "The Guild doesn’t want to talk to you—”

"Your master doesn’t want the Guild talking to me,” I said. "But the Guild does. They invited me to the Northern California Practitioner’s Conclave tomor­row, to report on my work in the Magical Security Council of Atlanta. If your master is in the Guild... he’s probably invited.”

Ferguson glared. "Frost, look,” he said. "He—they want you out of their ter­ritory.”

"I don’t care what hewants,” I said, jamming my hands in the pockets of my vestcoat. "This is a free country, and I have the right to bring my daughter here and keep her safe. And as far as the wizards who are here... well, all I care about is keeping them safe. Tell them that.”

Ferguson started to retort, then froze as Saffron’s hand tightened on his shoulder. "Tell them one more thing,” she said softly in his ear. "See the steel collar around the Lady Frost’s neck? And around the little girl’s neck? Her name’s Cinnamon, by the way. She’s not a pet.”

Cinnamon tugged at her collar, and I pulled at mine as well—polished stain­less steel, with a soft black rubber liner and an elaborate S engraved on the front. Mine was comfortably fitted to my neck. Cinnamon’s was far wider, so she could change.

Saffron drew back slightly, at first I thought to make her look imperious; then I realized the angle would make it easier for her to bite. Saffron waited for Ferguson to nod, then said, "That’s the sign of the House of Saffron, the Vam­pire Queen of Atlanta. Mysign.”

And Saffron bared her cruel vampire fangs.

"Oh, fuck me,” Ferguson said, flinching away from her, but Saffron held him firm.

"If any harm befalls Dakota or Cinnamon, my wrath will be... awesome,” she said, oh-so-sweetly, turning up the Southern Belle accent at just the right point to convey ultimate menace. Her fangs were as long as Cinnamon’s. "Please deliver that along with Dakota’s message.”

"Understood,” Ferguson said. He was shaking when she released him.

"Sorry,” I said.

"What?” Ferguson said, still flinching away from Saffron.

"They really should have told you,” I said. "They had to have known. I’m so sorry.”

"What?” Ferguson said, backing away, slipping the envelope back into his vest. "What? Fuck you, lady, I-I’m loyal to—to the Guild! He—they would have told me if they’d known! And I can take care of myself!”

And then he zipped his vest up and whirled, and in a blink of magic he was gone.

My jaw dropped. It hadn’t been teleportation, exactly—of that I was cer­tain, as I’d become a bit of an expert in that area—but it was a damn impressive combination of accelerated movement combined with some kind of perceptual effect. I squinted, trying to see the traces, then gave up and put my hand to my brow to dispel the sudden magically-induced headache.

"Cool!” Cinnamon said, peering after him; then she, too, put her hand to her forehead and grimaced. "Ouchies—eggbeaters to the noggins—but super cool! Mr. Wizard meets Sonic the Hedgehog. Wind gots to whip him up though—ergo, them riding leathers.”

"‘Ergo?’” Vickman asked, smiling. Even the grizzled ex-South African De­fense Forces veteran was softening after half a year hanging around Cinnamon, and he reached to tousle her hair. "Since when does a street cat start dropping ‘ergo’ in polite conversation?”

"Hey! No mocking the me,” Cinnamon said, trying to simultaneously swat at him while readjusting her headscarf. "Since my prof stopped asking me to solve problems, and started asking me to prove theorems.” She looked at me. "Well, Mom? Do we bails on San Fran?”

I looked at her in shock... and then realized everyone was looking at me.

"Ah, hell,” I said, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. I was the head of the Magical Security Council. I couldn’t lean on Vickman’s paranoia or defer to Saffron’s authority; ultimately, the decision was on me.

"We cannot force harmony without a common purpose,” Darkrose warned. "The truce in Atlanta was reached after wizards and vampires fought the graffiti plague, together. Perhaps the Guild here is simply not ready to ac­cept an emissary allied to their longtime foes—”

"It’s a faction,” I said. "Not the whole Guild—”

"We could get a hotel at the airport,” Saffron said. "We already have rooms for Dakota and Cinnamon; maybe we can expand the reservation. We can call the Vampire Court with our apologies, and leave as soon as we can arrange transport for Nyissa—”

"No,” I said firmly. "Look... thanks, both of you. Those are good op­tions, but we won’t use them unless we have to. We stay. This is precisely the kind of infighting the Board has been successful at stopping in Atlanta. I’m sure we’ll have no trouble here either.”

"Oh, you had to go jinx it, didn’t you?” Saffron murmured.

"So,” I said, "should we hunker down in the hotel while you guys go to the Court?”

"No,” Vickman said. "I don’t want you isolated in some place Fergie and his employer might know about—especially with your bodyguard here con­fined to her coffin in our hired car while the formalities are worked out in Court. Go to the club.”

"The club? Where Jewel’s performing? Neither of which we know any­thing about?”

"Ignorance is correctable,” Vickman said, pulling out his phone. "Give me the card.”

I extended the card, and Vickman took it, turned it over, and grunted. Then he flipped down his smartphone’s keyboard and thumbed rapidly. He pursed his lips, making the white bristles in his salt-and-pepper beard sparkle; then he handed the card back to me.

"Probably. The website checks out and it’s been advertised for months,” he said. Then Vickman smiled, and his eyes got mischievous, reminding me a bit of a bearded Crocodile Dundee, though I knew I was mixing up my ruins of empire. "And it sounds like fun.”

"You hits the Wayback that fast?” Cinnamon asked skeptically, sneezing.

"I have an app for it,” Vickman said, showing her the phone, and Cinnamon cooed appreciatively. He pulled it away before she could snatch it, but then he began showing her how the app worked. "Put together by one of the Van Helsings back at the office.”

I watched them natter on about scripts and Internet archives for a minute, then shook my head. When I adopted Cinnamon nine months ago, she had been almost illiterate, computer or otherwise. I had been a computer lab tech in college, so I showed her a few things. Now....

"You ever feel stupid, listening to them?” I asked Saffron.

"No,” Saffron replied. She was a few signatures away from a Ph.D. in vam­pirology, but knew no more about computers than I did; our childhood friend Jinx had got that gene. Saffron said, "They do leave me feeling a bit ignorant. Fortunately, ignorance iscorrectable.”

"Only with great effort,” I said. "All right, can we have a verdict? Safe? Fun?”

"Safe,” Vickman said, closing his smartphone keyboard with a click. "Go to the club. It’s an unplanned diversion from our agenda, which means you and Cinnamon will be safer than we are—because no one will expect you to be there. Just... please be careful.”

"Definitely fun,” Cinnamon said, flipping the card over in her hands. She was smiling.


"Alright, Cinnamon,” I said, smiling back at her. "Ready for a girl’s night out?”


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